Harvard Educational Review
  1. Right Where We Belong

    How Refugee Teachers and Students Are Changing the Future of Education

    Sarah Dryden-Peterson

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022. 272 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

    On September 14, 2022, fifty Venezuelan refugees arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in a plane from Texas that was chartered by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis (Zuckoff, 2022). These men, women, and children had recently crossed the southern US border and found shelter in San Antonio. But they now found themselves on the small Northeastern island with no idea where they were and where they would go next and unaware that they were being used as political pawns by conservative US politicians. In an effort to find refuge from violence and escape a lack of economic opportunity in their country, these people had sought better, though uncertain, prospects in another country. Now they found themselves facing the uncertainty of where to go next, rather than the possibility of a better future.

    This political exploitation is not uncommon to the refugee youth experience. In October 2022, the number of Ukrainian refugees stood at 7.6 million worldwide (UNHCR, 2022), a figure that contributes to the 4.4 million Venezuelan refugees, 3 million Ethiopian refugees from the Tigray region, and the 13.5 million Syrian refugees, among others. By the end of 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a total of 27.1 million refugees and 53.2 million internally displaced people worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations, a number equivalent to the population of Australia, Texas, or New Delhi (UNHCR, 2022).

    The refugee crisis is one of the most important social and political issues of our time. It is in this context that Sarah Dryden-Peterson offers Right Where We Belong: How Refugee Teachers and Students Are Changing the Future of Education, an important contribution to the conversation about the role that education can and should play for the future of refugees around the world.

    The book focuses on one key question: What would it take to ensure that all refugee youth have access to learning that enables them to feel a sense of belonging and prepares them to help build more peaceful and equitable futures? Using this question as a compass, Dryden-Peterson presents the results of fifteen years of her work in the field of refugee education, including ethnographic observations and more than six hundred interviews in twenty-three countries conducted as part of nine discrete studies and multiple small projects looking across national, temporal, political, social, and economic contexts.

    Right Where We Belong is structured into six chapters that neatly deconstruct the main query into five subqueries framed from the perspectives of refugee teachers and students. To put these five questions into context, in chapter 1 Dryden-Peterson presents the story of Jacques, “the refugee teacher,” a human rights activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo who left his country due to political persecution and dedicated his life to building a school for refugees in Uganda. The first question—“When forced to leave home, what can protect us?”—works as the departing point in chapter 2, “Sanctuary.” Chapter 3, “Power,” grapples with the question of who decides what we learn. Chapter 4, “Purpose,” asks, “How are education and future opportunities connected?” And chapters 5 and 6, “Learning” and “Belonging,” grapple with ideas around what kind of learning can create opportunities and the ways we can fight structural inequities. All six chapters and their corresponding questions are organized within a narrative arc that connects the past, present, and future and is illustrated with the stories of other refugee students and teachers from multiple locations.

    One of the most thought-provoking parts of the book is chapter 3, which focuses on the power dynamics in decision-making around refugee education. Dryden-Peterson uses this section to place the conversation within the context of the history of refugee education over the past sixty years that is fundamental for understanding where we are and how we got here—How is it that refugee camps came to be? She explains that the global patterns in refugee education can be broadly classified into four stages that are deeply connected to the history of UNHCR as an agency: liberation, standardization, localization, and nationalization. These stages also help explain the relationship between UNHCR and different types of host countries— neighboring hosts like Uganda or distant hosts like the US and Canada—and the geopolitical interests that determine who should be responsible for refugee education. According to the author, the dilemma at the heart of education policy making is determining which entity is responsible for the education of a child and to which entity the collective benefits of investment in education accrue: “Modern states take on the responsibility of education and the provision of other social services, with belief in the benefits of economic, political, civil and social future returns. But will the future returns of education of refugees accrue to the hosting country?” (101). In this way, she highlights the core tension around negotiating who should bear the benefits and costs of refugee education.

    Throughout the book, Dryden-Peterson raises provocative questions that help readers gain a better understanding of the tensions that refugee education contends with. Rather than pointing at a responsible institution or providing easy fixes, Right Where We Belong highlights the trade-offs inherent to this work. the author’s extensive and intentional work with teachers, national governments, UN agencies, and civil society organizations has put her in the unique position to listen to the perspectives of various humanitarian and development stakeholders. It has also helped her understand how they grapple with the financial, political, and moral trade-offs of their decisions and allowed her to question the disconnect between these decisions and the realities of what teachers and students experience in their classrooms. Right Where We Belong presents one of the most comprehensive perspectives in the field of refugee education.

    If I can think of any room for improvement in this book, it would not relate to its methodological rigor or analytical depth but, rather, to how its recommendations are presented. Though the author does not shy away from providing recommendations for the field, the book would have benefited from more explicit advice about those recommendations and how they can fit together to shape future education for refugees. As the author walks readers through each chapter’s questions, tensions, and complexities, she offers advice, implicitly asking us to do the work of collecting the pieces of the puzzle and putting them together at the end. At points, I felt the need for an overarching framework that could help organize these recommendations and make sense of them collectively and in relation to one another. Given that each chapter presents tensions and trade-offs stemming from the misalignments among international, national, and local actors, it would have been helpful to map each recommendation to its corresponding level(s) of implementation. This would have helped not only clarify which actors could make these recommendations actionable but would also align various actors working at different levels.

    Dryden-Peterson wrote Right Where We Belong with a broad range of audiences in mind: international humanitarian organizations, policy makers at the national and local levels, nonprofit organizations on the ground, teachers and students in the classrooms, and researchers. All of these stakeholders will benefit from reading this book and engaging with the questions and tensions proposed in each chapter. Though some readers might think the book is tailored to an audience of policy makers, I argue that the field requires systemic thinkers at all levels. It is only through the work of individuals with a multilevel, systemic understanding of the problem at hand that these recommendations can be realized.

    Right Where We Belong is evidence of years of work and dedication to the field. Dryden-Peterson’s work on multiple studies across geographies and time has been skillfully organized and curated for all audiences involved in refugee education. In this way, this constitutes a mandatory read in the field of education in emergencies and is an important step toward achieving more equitable futures for refugees around the world.

    santiago pulido-gómez


    United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR]. (2022). Refugee statistics. https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/#:~:text=By%20the%20end %20of%202021,53.2%20million%20internally%20displaced%20people 

    Zuckoff, E. (2022, September 15). Migrants on Martha’s Vineyard flight say they were told they were going to Boston. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/09/15/1123109768 /migrants-sent-to-marthas-vineyard


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Book Notes

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Algorithms of Education
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Right Where We Belong
Sarah Dryden-Peterson